Emerging Identities in Networked Publics

An ethnographic research on the community of practice of ::Italian Subs Addicted::

(Working Paper, August 2009)

In the late modernity, society has to be described as a complex global structure that requires new sociological approach. The different social levels, as individual identities and cultures, are no more conceptualized as set of observable characteristics, but are process that emerge from the reflexive projects of selves (Giddens 1991). Individuals are no more conceived as passive victims of the social structures; in fact individual actors have agency and construct their identities creatively elaborating cultural resources. The global society could be inquired with an ethnographic approach in order to describe how social actors participate in the construction of new social structure and new social spaces reshaping the mediascapes, the technoscapes, the financialscapes and the ideoscape (Appadurai 1996).
Technological innovations and the media system are part of broad cultural processes that redefine the social structures and reorganize the temporal and spatial dimension of everyday life. In fact print media had a role in the construction of imagined communities and cause the emergence of national identities. Instead electronic media allow a synchronous and delocalized communication (Thompson 1995) that contribute to the delegitimation of the national states. Then, Internet technologies define a participatory process from witch emerge the network society. In the space of flows, members of a techno-élite interact and collaborate participating in the construction of a meritocratic culture that has in part a communitarian ethos in part a capitalistic approach (Castells 1996). From their adoption and adaptation of interactive technologies as chat, forum and newsgroups (that are defined as social media) a socio-technical system and different form of collaborative interaction emerged. In particular interest-based community, focalized around a topic, and community of practice, focalized around a collaborative project, has been constructed. Those social groups have norms, a common language and a common ethos and thus could be defined as community. Online communities are in fact translocal public spaces that has been defined as neighbourhoods (Appadurai 1996): stable social structures with no local boundaries but that share a common biography and defined social spaces. Neighbourhoods often are in conflict with traditional collective identities as the national states. Translocal communities are the expression of a need of belonging that stimulate the aggregation around primary identities, as ethic group, or around tastes or media cults, from which weak identities emerge. Recently, Internet and old media converged in an interactive multimedia where the also a young generation participate in the construction of special interest group (Ito 2008) from witch a participatory media culture emerged (Jenkins 2006).
In this paper I will describe the theoretical (Hall 1980) and empirical (Lull 1990) studies on the social use of media that have been developed by Cultural Studies (Capecchi 2004), in particularly focusing on the emergence of individual and collective identities (Boni 2005). Starting from the reflection on the relationship between media, identities and globalization, I will conceive the youth participation in community of practice as the expression of a need of belonging that is not fulfilled by traditional collective identities as the local community, family or national identity. I will focus on the fan culture (Hills 2002) as an example of translocal public spaces with weak identity, that are constructed by passionate audiences (fan). From the ongoing interaction of the fans in the space of flow thus audience community of practice (Baym 2000) emerge around a media cult. Interpreting the social interaction between fans as performance of self (Goffman 1959) it is possible to describe the emergence of networked publics (boyd 2008), that are both public spaces and imagined communities. The performative systems of fans are thus new and unforeseen social form that emerge in the intersection between ideoscape, mediascapes, technoscapes, and financialscapes, highlight the problems and the opportunity of the contemporary media system.
I choose to inquire the Italian participatory cultures with a case study on a community of practice. My aim is to investigate three different levels of the fan cultures: (i) the individual motivation that stimulate fan to participate in a community of practice; (ii) the social structure of the community; (iii) the relationship between fan cultures and the media system. I’ve thus defined an ethnographic methodology that combines analytical auto-ethnography, participant observation and biographical interviews. After an explorative research I’ve ::Italian Subs Addicted:: (ItaSA) as an atypical example of participation because of the big dimension of the community and because the members are involved in a time consuming activity. In fact, ItaSa is a community of fansubbing: a cooperative project that involve the members in the translation of English subtitles of american tv serials.
ItaSa has been created in December 2005 when two Italian teens decided to publish a web portal in order to share fansub with Italian users. They also created a forum where users can discuss. Thanks to the word of mouth other fans became part of the original group, stimulated by the passion for a particular tv serial (that often is not rationally motivated by fans themselves) and by the hope to improve their English language. In the last three years the fan group evolved and became a community with a hierarchical organization and a staff of 200 subber organized in teams. A network of blog has also been created around the portal to translate in Italian the information about American serials. In particular Admin and Senior have to coordinate the team, manage the forum and the portal, select the subbers and teach them how to translate the subs. In facts to became a subber a test is required. Furthermore each subber has a tutor that judge his works evaluating the quality of his English translation, the quality of his Italian language and his technical competence. Seniors also select moderators that have to control the discussions on the forum and teach new users (newbies) how to behave in respect of the online social rules (netiquette). From the ongoing conversation between users in the forum both subgroups and many flows of digital art emerged. In particular fan share fan art that are digital images or video create to visual represent themselves online (avatar, banner e sign).
The member of ItaSa are part of a broad Italian audience that grew up in the 90s. During that period the national television broadcasted many american tv serial. Because of that an entire cohort became passionate and expert concerning that tv genre. (Aroldi & Colombo 2003). However, from the collaborative activity on the community of practice, they became also expert in the production of amateur content. Therefore the members of ItaSa cooperatively acquire social and symbolic capital and are thus now acknowledge as opinion leader by the Italian fan cultures. However ItaSa had to negotiate his presence in the networked publics with the previously digital generation that emerge during the 1990s. At present ItaSa is negotiating his role with the media industries. In fact some media companies asks them to collaborate and the mass media offer visibility to their activity. However the media system also spread moral panic labelling some fan practice as “digital piracy”.
ItaSa is thus a community of practice that emerge from a small group of mobilized audiences that created an amateur organization where the participation in the cooperative activity is also stimulated by competition. In ItaSa there is also a peer education process that allows members to develop different forms of capital. ItaSa is an atypical case for his dimension, however in the Italian fan cultures there are many other fan groups that create amateur products as forum, blog, profiles in Social Network Site or in Video Sharing Site. From the flow of amateur contents a new symbolic social space emerge where the global flow of commercial products is recontextualized in a local culture. In order to satisfy their need of belonging, fans differentiates themselves from the broad national identity participating in a transnational fan culture and constructing a subnational identity. A multimedia has recently emerged also in Italy (Scaglioni & Sfardini 2008), which offers to the young generation new opportunity of participation. In this context fan cultures work as gatekeeper creating an informative agenda and an amateur tv shedule that is alternative to the one proposed by the media industry. However there will be also new kind of digital divide, no more defined in terms of access, but in terms of communicative competences that are required to became part of a participatory culture. The rapid changes of the media system will thus cause new divide (for example the language divide), new gatekeeper (for example the community of practice), new risk (concerning privacy) and new opportunity (of peer education). In order to understand the dynamic of conflict and participation in the complex contemporary social system, I think that it’s worthwhile describing the emergence of new form of social participation in the networked publics.


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